MCC Photo/Ken Ogasawara

Steph Chandler Burns, Program Facilitator for MCC's Faith and Community Reintegration Program gathers supplies for house warming hampers.

What are spiritual needs? Is it prayer? Theological teachings? Worship songs?

Steph Chandler Burns, program facilitator for MCCO’s Faith and Community Reintegration Program (FCRP), believes spiritual needs can be more basic than that. “I personally believe that things like food, housing, shelter and employment are spiritual needs,” she says. “It’s hard to connect with your faith when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from.” 

Steph works toward linking people released on parole with meaningful spiritual experiences.

“It’s hard to connect with your faith when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from.” 

- Steph Chandler Burns

“It’s basically connection building between people who are coming out of prison and isolated, who might not have any friends or family in the community they end up in, with faith communities who want to show love to the community – who want to create connection.” While this type of connection building is a natural fit, it is sometimes hard to find each other.

The recognition that those who have committed a criminal offense need to be supported in order to create a safer community is a tough pill to swallow for much of the general public. Restorative justice, however, leans into that discomfort to advocate for a more comprehensive approach to justice that looks beyond the crime and the accompanying stigma.

For Rebecca Clark and fellow members at Dundas Street Centre United Church in downtown London,  doing what she can to support those affected by conflict is not contentious, but a natural response.

“I really do believe people deserve another chance. It’s hard I’m sure, when they’ve come out of jail, to get a leg up.”

Rebecca and others at Dundas United connected with Steph at MCC over the summer, and are now active in assisting the Faith and Community Reconciliation Program by donating and assembling “house-warming” hampers for individuals returning to the community after serving their sentence. These hampers contain the basic amenities for someone starting to live on their own: toothbrushes, toothpaste, a comb, toilet paper, dish rack, dishcloths, laundry detergent and a toilet bowl brush, among other items.

The simple contents of the hampers reflect a stark reality for those returning to community: many are leaving prison with nothing but the shirt on their back.

This is where churches and faith groups often fill a need – a spiritual need, as Steph points out.  “Churches often have resources, benevolent funds, food banks, lunches and donations, and part of that connection is accessing resources that are kind of hidden.”

Many who transition through FCRP may not claim to be active in any particular faith, but Steph recognizes the benefits of community groups like Dismas Fellowship that provide a place for ex-offenders and volunteers to come together in faith, as well as receiving a hot meal. There’s no obligation to participate in the prayer and faith component, notes Steph. “There’s a dinner and sometimes a meal is enough. So I’ll tell people there’s a Christian element to it and, if that’s uncomfortable, you don’t have to stay for that or you don’t have to come. But it is a place of supportive people and they’ll often keep coming.”

Ultimately, the goal of FCRP, like other restorative justice measures, is to attempt to heal a broken world by recognizing the humanity in each person, regardless of past crimes or current stigmas. For Rebecca, a retired teacher whose church community works a lot with the homeless population in downtown London, it is a willingness to see the innocent child they once were. “I guess I always feel in my heart, if you see someone on the street, or in trouble… he was a little boy or girl once… just an average little guy,” she reflects. “Things have happened to him, and perhaps he’s been involved in those poor decisions, but still, they deserve some help and another chance.”

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